Friday, May 1, 2009

David Foster Wallace

Dear The Ghost of David Foster Wallace,

Seriously? Suicide? Do you know how much of a colossal bummer it is to find a writer whose work makes me laugh, and cry, and feel smart, and then to find out that he went and offed himself? Sir, I have, in fact, considered the lobster. Furthermore, as a girl with curious hair, I am sad.

Wallace's death isn't news, per se; he died in September of 2008, which is neither ancient history or bleeding edge. I first encounted his writing in the Atlantic, through a feature he wrote called "Host," which was about right-wing talk radio. It employed the semi-irritating trope of highlighting various words in order the examine them in more detail - "words" being kind of a stretch, since most of the arrows led back to the space after the end of a sentence. Still, it was memorable. I hung onto that issue ( full disclosure: I hang onto every magazine I buy) and have gone back a few times to re-read the article. The highlighted boxes remain irritating. The story itself is very, very interesting.

I feel like this sort of sums up the DFW pantheon: vaguely annoying tricks - his use of footnotes can drive priests to guzzle gin - embedded in really great writing. He's smart. He's really smart, but not in a way that makes me feel bad. Wallace's prose reads like a precocious child, or a very well-read alien: smart (at times incredibly so) but also operating just outside the usual scope. It feels refreshing and not at all contrived. I'm not wild about his short stories - again, with footnotes, some of which are longer than the body of the "main" story - but his essays are things of beauty.

For example: "Up, Simba," written in 2000, is Wallace's profile of GOP hopeful and future wackadoo John McCain. Originally intended for Rolling Stone, The McCain piece cobbles together every conceivable emotion: I was impressed with one of the campaign assistants and his ability to sleep standing up; I was disgusted with the whole politics-as-personality-war that has infected every election since Nixon resigned; I cried at Wallace's description of a seemingly ordinary man who shows up at one of McCain's Town Hall Meetings and turns out to be clinically insane and worried (a lethal combination, and one that resonates ever more when one remembers that Wallace suffered from depression for more than 20 years). Wallace had a real gift for making the mundane seem unusual: when he mentions, in passing and in a different essay, that he is a church member, it comes as a shock. Surely this gifted and highly po-mo writer wouldn't be involved in something as pedestrian as Christianity...right? Right?

Which is the other reason the suicide is just sad. Wallace left behind a wife, a church, a bunch of students (he was a teacher at Pomona), his parents (and that's just upsetting on a moral-fibre, gut-clench sort of way), and his readers. David Foster Wallace could think and write circles around 99% of the population, including the people with whom he's concurrent in the publishing world. I'm not saying there's no reason - I have literally no way of understanding what 20 years of clinical depression would do to a person's soul (and Goddamn, I'm lucky), but I am saying it's sad.

No comments:

Post a Comment